CARL SHILTON on the latest accusations of stunts and mistrust on Sutton Council, where the ruling group fears losing key votes
Sutton’s Liberal Democrats last night postponed a scheduled meeting of the full council, in a move suspected to have been taken to avoid them being defeated on any votes, after a covid outbreak depleted their numbers.
The previously dominant Sutton LibDems under their leader Ruth Dombey, who have run the borough like a one-party state for more than 30 years, have been reduced to a majority of just three seats following May’s local elections.
Yet while the LibDems were too ill to conduct important council business on Monday night because of a highly contagious virus, some had been out in force on Sunday afternoon, campaigning in Carshalton and glad-handing the public for their prospective parliamentary candidate, Wrythe councillor Bobby Dean.
In the typically self-conscious selfies that were tweeted by Dean, there was not a covid-protective mask to be seen.
Dean was not the only serving LibDem councillor shown in the photographs he published: alongside side him were Paul Cole (St Helier East) and Jake Short (Carshalton Central).
This raises the thorny question of when the LibDems knew of the covid outbreak in their midst and why the issue of councillor sickness was not raised sooner. There’s also the matter of what happens if councillors are still sick next Monday or the outbreak spreads. Somehow the show must go on.
Inside Sutton understands that at least six LibDem councillors have contracted the virus – potentially reducing their number available to vote on Monday night to 23 on the 54-seat council.
It was just after 3pm yesterday afternoon when Dean tweeted the news that the council meeting was being postponed “because of a spike of covid cases among councillors”.
He probably meant to say “among LibDem councillors”. On Monday morning, there were no cases of covid in the Tory, Labour or independent councillor groups.
In a series of hurried consultations between the four groups earlier in the day, it was eventually agreed that full council would be postponed for one week to July 18.
The LibDems, encouraged by council chief executive Helen Bailey, had pushed for the meeting to be switched online – a request opposed by the opposition parties, for reasons not unrelated to how the LibDems conducted online meetings during and after lockdown.
The legal standing of such an online meeting was also a key issue.
The fact is, as several irritated members of the public observed, last night’s meeting could have been held quite legally.
A full council meeting can proceed with a quorum of 14 members (a quarter of all councillors).
One council source told Inside Sutton that they felt there was an undercurrent in yesterday’s negotiations that the sick LibDem councillors might be instructed by their political bosses to attend in person if the opposition parties insisted on a public meeting going ahead.
Under current covid laws, this would be perfectly legal but clearly irresponsible.
Once a decision to move the meeting was agreed, there was a procedural requirement to actually hold a brief but quorate council meeting of at least 14 councillors to accept an urgent motion to adjourn. But despite the supposed risk of a “superspreader” gathering, this meeting was held in Meeting Room 1 at Civic Offices – a small room that usually hosts committee meetings of no more than 15 members.
The originally proposed venue for the adjournment meeting in Sutton Central Library is more open and better ventilated. The smaller meeting room had more than 20 people present when the vote was taken…
So why were the Council’s opposition parties unanimous in their desire not to switch the council meeting online? The first problem is the law: council meetings must now be held in person.
But this is an issue that many councils bypassed after lockdown measures were eased with the use of an in-person “Urgency Committee” of three councillors to ratify the “advisory” decisions of committees.
Sutton’s Urgency Committee still exists. It’s just not all that… well… “urgent”. It requires a five-day notice period for its meetings, so it could not be used to ratify an online meeting the same day nor to make the decision to adjourn.
The bigger issue was the distrust the opposition parties have in the LibDem administration, and Bailey, following the post-election stitch-up when they took 60per cent or more of committee places while holding only a slender council majority, thus disenfranchising the opposition from most key decisions.
“Covid is a horrible virus and is clearly still with us,” Tom Drummond, the leader of the Conservative opposition on the council.
“My group took the view that adjournment was the fairest option in what was a unique situation. Councillors were unwell, so we took a sympathetic view. One important agenda item at council is our motion on the London Mayor’s ULEZ proposals for Sutton, which I think all parties will want to debate effectively, so we can agree a response.
“During lockdown we had an instance of a LibDem councillor muting an opposition speaker during debate. This shows how an online meeting is open to abuse, and can lead to a stifling of opposition voices, sidelining the open and passionate debate demanded and deserved by the residents of Sutton.”
Sheldon Vestey, the Labour council spokesperson, said, “Once is acceptable and the Labour group is happy to accommodate an adjournment, wishing our colleagues a swift recovery.
“However, if it becomes clear that the small majority the Liberal Democrats hold is causing them problems, and they opt to adjourn in the future, we can’t hold up the business of the council indefinitely and will have to press on.”
Independent group leader Tim Foster echoed these concerns.
“With their narrow majority, we want to face the LibDems live in council, not remotely where the meeting is totally controllable by the administration,” Foster told Inside Sutton.
“There is a future place for online and especially hybrid meetings to allow more of our community to engage in local issues. But to take this council meeting online at such short notice would be just a sticking plaster to allow the LibDems to maintain their wafer-thin majority.
“Who’s to say they won’t pull a similar stunt whenever they have unavoidable absentees and lose their majority? And is it likely they would extend the same courtesy to opposition parties if we had sickness in our ranks? It’s a question of trust.”
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